Rio Offers Chance to Train Like Olympians at Fan Zones

The zones aim to popularize Olympic sports to a futebol-mad nation

Rio Olympics Golf Men

If the golf swing required less technique and more rhythm — like samba dancing, say — the sport would no doubt be monopolized by Brazilians. Instead, after watching a dozen or so novices take their first lesson, it's barely an exaggeration to say the instruction begins with which end of the club to grip. 

Golf and other sports at the Rio Olympics are offering "Fan Zones" that give the chance to train like an Olympian. For the price of an event ticket, spectators can practice boxing, riding, fencing, rowing and other sports at zones set up just outside the field of play and usually with an instructor nearby. For obvious reasons, shooting is the rare venue without one. 

The zones, for the most part, aim to popularize Olympic sports to a futebol-mad nation of 200 million people. 

In the case of golf, where the game's roots are old but not deep, the interactive teaching and recreational center at the Olympic Golf Course is run with the assistance of the Brazilian Golf Federation, which has also launched a program "Golf Para Vida (Golf For Life)" hoping to introduce schoolkids to the game during the two weeks of the tournament. 

Marcello do Nascimento, a Rio native who got his start as a caddie at one of the city's two private clubs and is now one of 250 teaching pros in the country, estimated he'd given roughly 700 lessons during the first three days of the men's competition. 

On either side of him, three hitting bays with artificial-turf mats and netting, as well as a miniature golf course are swarmed with kids and their parents. Off to one side, at least 10 people wait in line to take a shot at video simulators that measure "longest drive" and "closest shot to the pin." 

"About 200 people had some familiarity with the game before," do Nacimento said through a translator. "But perhaps 80 have taken my card already and many of them have inquired about where they can buy clubs."

By that measure, Artur Nunes is a promising student. The 12-year-old from Rio plays tennis, so at least he's had some practice whacking a ball in space, and he took his first lesson when the family was on vacation. Even so, do Nascimento begins with the basics, emphasizing the proper grip and stance. 

Artur pays close attention, but lets on a moment later that the thing he likes most about golf is how far — on those few occasions when he hits it flush — the ball travels. 

His mother, Claudia, on the other hand, views the game more practically. She works in the human resources of a Rio-based company and thinks learning the game would help Artur in the future. 

"Here, it's still a game for the elite, but it can also be an opportunity to meet people," she said. "The more it becomes available to the public, the more I believe people will take it up." 

About 25,000 Brazilians play at least one round a year on the country's 125 courses and 10,000 golfers have registered handicaps. There are 125 golf courses spread across the country, but currently not even one public layout in the Rio metropolitan area. After the games, the Olympic course will be handed over to the city for 20 years, with up to 100 youngsters allowed on the course each day.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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